Magazine article Newsweek

Look Past Polygamy

Magazine article Newsweek

Look Past Polygamy

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Murr

The 1953 Short Creek raid taught authorities a valuable lesson.

It was July 26, 1953. In the pre-dawn hours, 120 heavily armed Arizona lawmen prepared to descend upon the small polygamous community of Short Creek, home to the roughly 500 men, women and children of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The governor, J. Howard Pyle, had ordered a two-year investigation into polygamy and the marriage of teen girls to older men, and the cops arrived ready to take almost the entire town into custody. But the plans hit a snag. FLDS lookouts spoiled the raid by setting off a dynamite charge when they spotted state troopers and National Guardsmen approaching. Fearing a shootout, the lawmen cranked their sirens and sped into town, guns drawn. "You are all under arrest!" shouted the sheriff over a loudspeaker. "Stay where you are." But no one was going anywhere: officers found the residents of Short Creek gathered in the schoolyard, unarmed and singing hymns.

Pyle told a radio audience that day that his men had broken up "the foulest conspiracy you could imagine," but that's not how the public saw it as details of the raid emerged. Thirty-six men were arrested and jailed 250 miles away in Kingman, Ariz.; mothers and children were shipped to foster homes even farther away. The incident turned into a PR nightmare, and within a few years nearly all the families had reunited and returned. For decades, the lessons of Short Creek have exerted great influence on law enforcement's attitudes toward FLDS. The philosophy guiding last month's raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, was at least partially shaped by the aftermath of that morning in 1953. The raid proved such a disaster that officials ignored polygamists for decades. It wasn't until notorious child-abuse cases in the late '90s showed the limitations of that approach that law enforcement settled on a new deal: accept, if not condone, the polygamy, but prosecute the abuses of young girls.

Though the mainstream Mormon church excommunicated polygamists in 1890, the practice has lived on among splinter groups in rural pockets. "The goal of that first raid was to eliminate the practice of plural marriage, and it absolutely failed," says University of Utah historian Martha Bradley, author of "Kidnapped From That Land," a book about the 1953 raid. In his rambling radio address, Pyle, a rising Republican who had delivered a rousing speech at the GOP convention a year earlier, blasted a "small handful of greedy and licentious men," who forced "every maturing girl -- into a bondage of multiple wifehood. …

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